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Green towns offer new ideas

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This is the second in a two-part report on municipal energy conservation.

As sustainability gains ground as an integral component of city planning, many municipalities across the country are creating ways to use less energy and ensure that the energy they use comes from renewable sources.

Several cities researched for this article have mandated that all new construction meets the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) energy-efficient standard. Other cities have established funding mechanisms to provide incentives for residential and commercial retrofits. The city of Oberlin, Ohio, and Oberlin College have embarked on a green approach to urban revitalization, while one tiny town in Kansas aims to become the country’s top model green community.

While so far in its approach to sustainability Yellow Springs has focused on discreet solutions, the Village’s formation of an energy task force and this week a new Village Energy Board reflects a renewed commitment in its approach to sustainability as a systemic issue. While the full impact of these new efforts is not clear yet, the Village has an opportunity to share with and learn from other communities that are on a similarly green course.

The Oberlin Project

The city of Oberlin along with Oberlin College is working toward a vision to turn the city into a carbon-free energy system. Under the guidance of David Orr, the college’s Paul Sears Professor of Environmental Studies, the city began the Oberlin Project this year as an integrated approach to sustainable and economic urban development.

According to an Oberlin College press release in March, at the core of the project is a 13-acre city block, where a dozen new and renovated buildings, largely owned by the college, are planned. The block is designed as a LEED platinum neighborhood and will serve as an arts district, an economic stimulant and a sustainability educational center. Surrounding the core, project leaders hope to establish a 20,000-acre working greenbelt including 40 to 50 farms that would have a guaranteed market in the local schools and restaurants, according to an article in Sustainable Industries magazine in March.

Oberlin, population 8,200, is one of 17 cities around the world to join the nation’s Climate Positive Development Program, which will offer international partnership and technical support for the project. And as an integral partner in the project, the city of Oberlin has a $60,000 sustainability reserve fund, generated through renewable energy credits purchased by Oberlin College, City Manager Eric Norenberg said this week. The city disperses the funds for efficiency projects, including seed money for a home weatherization program for low- to moderate-income families. In addition to helping to develop a sustainability curriculum for its secondary and vocational schools, the city hopes to stimulate the private sector to invest in green solutions, such as generating biomass energy, and create jobs for the local economy, Norenberg said.

While there is no overall budget established for the Oberlin Project, Norenberg said both the city and the college are working to draw funds from various sources. The college is fundraising for its downtown buildings, including a hotel, an auditorium and an art museum. And the city is looking at ways to subsidize residential and commercial retrofits through utility rate increases, as well as incentivize the retrofits by offering utility rebates, Norenberg said.

Greensburg goes green

When the town of Greensburg, Kan., was leveled by a category 5 tornado in 2007, out of the disaster its leaders saw an opportunity. Using the boost it received from insurance companies and the Federal Disaster Management Agency, the town of 900 people decided that it was going to rebuild in the spirit of its name as a complete green town.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, which partnered with Greensburg as a sustainability consultant, the town adopted an ordinance that all new city buildings would be built to LEED platinum standards (using 42 percent less energy than the previous code allowed), and all new homes and commercial buildings would be built to use 30–40 percent less energy than before the tornado.

Under the coordinating nonprofit organization Green Town, Greensburg has rebuilt eight buildings to the LEED platinum standard, including an arts center, an apartment building, city hall, a John Deere dealership and a hospital, according to Green Town’s site manager Ruth Ann Wedel.

Green Town has also initiated a Chain of Eco-Homes series of 12 architected energy-efficient homes, each featuring different energy-saving technologies. Visitors are invited to stay the night in these homes to experience first-hand an energy-efficient space and to generate eco-tourist dollars for the town. The first home, the Silo Eco-Home, built with 6-inch concrete walls, roof and floor, and powered by photovoltaics on the roof, was completed this spring.

Supported by the scope and innovation of Green Town’s plan, the organization received financing for the first home through a small loan, a $50,000 grant from AT&T, and donated appliances and fixtures from companies hoping to showcase their energy-efficient models, Wedel said. The designs for the silo home and a forthcoming passive house and a local materials house, were solicited from architects around the country as a competition.

Greensburg has also helped to develop a 12.5 megawatt wind farm in the area and has entered into an agreement with its power provider to receive 100 percent of its power from wind, hydro and other renewable sources, including a 1.5 MW biodiesel backup source, according to the DOE Web site. The city also purchased its first biodiesel utility vehicle.

Bloomington for bicyclists

While the city of Bloomington, Indiana, population 70,000, is many times the size of Yellow Springs, Jacqui Bauer, the city’s sustainability coordinator, believes that many of the green solutions the big college town has envisioned would be better suited to a smaller community, such as developing a local food network. But the city has implemented other measures that make it one of that state’s model green communities.

Last year Bloomington adopted a green building ordinance mandating that all city buildings, both new and existing, be either built or retrofitted to the LEED silver standard. The city used federal stimulus funds to retrofit city hall, whose new temperature sensor boiler, according to Bauer, is expected to reduce the energy needed to heat and cool the building by 36 percent. The new LED and compact fluorescent lights are expected to save 30 percent of the building’s electricity use, and a moisture-sensitive irrigation system should reduce the water use by 65 percent.

The city’s commitment to being the third city in the country to achieve platinum status from the League of American Bicyclists prompted leaders to spend nearly two-thirds of its federal stimulus funds last year on improving its bicycle infrastructure and educational and motorist enforcement programs.

Bloomington has also embarked on a pilot project to build 12 affordable homes to the LEED silver standard. According to Marilyn Patterson, of the city’s housing and neighborhood development department, the city owns the land and will use federal Housing and Urban Development Community Block funds to subsidize the cost of the homes.   

Retrofit funding mechanisms

Several municipalities around the country have gotten creative about financing energy-efficient construction. According to the DOE’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance Web site, many of these funding models are based on the Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program that uses property tax assessments to repay low-interest loans.

According to the Annapolis Energy Zone Web site, Maryland’s capital launched a program last year that allows residents and businesses to attach energy-improvement loans to their properties. The loans are financed through local banks and then repaid over 20 years through the home’s annual property tax assessments. Property owners would save money on energy costs, which could help with the repayment, and if the property sells before the loan is repaid, the new owners assume the assessments in addition to the energy savings. The loans for that program are repaid at a 5.5 percent interest rate.

According to the Self-Reliance site, Babylon, N.Y., created a similar program to finance residential retrofit loans through solid waste collection fees, which are repaid through the solid waste pick-up fee assessed to the participating home. Another program in Berkeley, Calif., uses municipal bonds to finance loans at a 7.7 percent interest rate, which are to be used for solar projects only. Those loans are designed to be repaid through property tax assessments as well.

For related articles on issues of energy use and the village, visit and search for “energy efficiency.”

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